In 2020, the smartphone world has matured and we’re seeing advancements in meaningful places like Artificial Intelligence, smartphone photography and now 5G. 

Unfortunately the political side of things has also entered the arena and we’re faced with an elephant in the room when it comes to reviewing a Huawei phone – the US trade ban. The ban currently doesn’t allow Huawei to source parts, or even software from US vendors – including a version of Android with the Google Play Store and all the apps normally available through it.

Huawei has made strides to limit the effects of the trade ban. They have a number of alternate sources for their hardware, and can build Android from the publicly available sources and bake in their Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) – their replacement for Google Play Services – with a layer their EMUI custom skin over the top. 

The Huawei App Gallery – their replacement for the Google Play app store – boasts a decent array of apps and Huawei have given a number of options for accessing your favourite services even if they aren’t available on their app store.

At $1,599, Huawei hasn’t shied away from creating the best they can with the Huawei P40 Pro in terms of hardware. It isn’t a cheap option when it comes to a phone in Australia, but the big question is whether the limitation on access to software affects the phone experience as a whole, beyond the hardware. 

Hardware and Design
Put simply, the Huawei P40 Pro is gorgeous. It’s lovely to look at with a big 6.58-inch OLED ‘waterfall’ display which includes a now-standard-on-flagships 90Hz refresh rate. 

The ‘waterfall’ display, so called because it overflows all four sides of the phone with a beautiful flowing curve, is really nice to look at – the curved screen and frame make it really easy to hold as well. The screen is high enough resolution – 2,640 x 1,200 – that it looks good, without needing to stress the battery by pushing more pixels and bright enough that it looks good, even in broad daylight. 

There’s a double wide punch-hole ‘notch’ in the display for the selfie cameras (32MP + ‘Depth’ camera), and you can do a bit in software to hide the notch even further – by covering it with a black bar, which reduces the amount of usable work space you can use on the phone. I’m not a huge fan of the whole ‘notch’ thing, but if it absolutely has to be there, Huawei has at least given you an option to minimise its impact.

To maintain the clean lines of the phone Huawei has built the earphone into the display on the P40 Pro. You still get a speaker on the bottom next to the USB-C jack for stereo audio, but there’s no headphone jack which is disappointing, though not unexpected these days.

Huawei sent over the Deep Sea Blue model for review, which has a matte finish on the rear, and though it will still attract fingerprints, they’re not as noticeable as a phone with a gloss rear. There is a free, clear TPU case included in the box, so for both protection and to minimise fingerprints, slap that on and you’re good to go.

The feel of the matte rear combined with the improved curvature of the display makes for a comfortable in-hand feel. At 6.58-inches, the screen should feel larger in the hand than it actually did, and it slides into a pants pocket with ease.

Of course once you’ve flipped the phone over you’ll note there’s no fingerprint sensor – it’s built into the display, and it’s ‘30% larger and 30% faster’ than the P30 Pro according to their release. In practice the scanner is easier to hit and definitely one of the faster scanners on the market. 

Huawei has included their Kirin 990 5G processor, 8GB RAM and 256 GB of on-board storage. The SIM tray – which inserts into the bottom of the phone – is laid out back to back and supports either Huawei’s NM SD Card expandable storage up to 256GB or a second SIM.

Big screen, powerful processor, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a battery hog, but the P40 Pro is more refined seemingly sipping from the battery only when necessary. I averaged 2 days between recharges, often with 8-9 hours of screen time.

The phone recharges quickly as well with the ‘Huawei SuperCharge’ 40W charger topping up the phone almost to full in just a half hour. 

If you don’t need that fast top up though you can use the wireless charging which is pretty fast itself with support up to 27W. Now I don’t have a 27W wireless charger, but it does pretty well on a 10W. You can also use the reverse wireless charging feature to top up another phone, but I mainly used it to top up my Huawei Freebuds earphones. 

It’s hard to miss the absolutely massive rectangular camera island on the rear of the phone, it’s larger due to the inclusion of the ‘Ultra Vision Leica Quad Camera’. The Leica engineered setup includes a massive 50MP 1/1.28 inch sensor with 2.44 μm super large pixel for brilliant night capture behind a wide lens, a 40MP ultrawide sensor, 12MP sensor sitting behind a 5x optical zoom using a periscope system, and a time of flight sensor for adding depth information.

The camera setup remains one of the most attractive reasons for picking up a P-Series phone and the P40 Pro is no different, pushing the boundaries on mobile photography. 

Whether it’s night, or day you get a decent shot from the P40 Pro. The ‘Normal’ mode even does an outstanding job on low-light photos, as well as the normal day to day photos.

Huawei has included a Night mode though – enhanced by Artificial Image Stabilisation (AIS) and Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) – and it’s stellar. You hold the phone for eight seconds or so and the software stacks the image to make the clearest shot.

The wide mode on the 50MP sensor gives a good view, but the ultra-wide option with the 40MP sensor just gives more options to get the wider shot when you’re not able to take a step back.

The big camera feature for most people though is the stellar zoom on the P40 Pro. The camera comes with a 5x optical zoom which uses a periscope system to refract light. The P40 Pro though uses AI to up the ante though to 50x hybrid zoom which is frankly astonishing in practice.

Beyond hardware Huawei have done another stellar job on their camera software, both in terms of UI for the camera app – which is really easy to navigate – and the AI camera features. Huawei’s Camera AI will suggest the best settings for you, but Huawei also announced two new features for the P40 Pro: Golden Snap – which lets you remove unwanted people in the frame, and a new option to let you remove reflections, for example pictures taken out of a window, or through a glass case at a museum. 

In practice, I’ve used the ‘Golden Snap’ feature on other phones, it works decently well by recording frames pre and post shutter press and lets you select from several frames. Of more interest to me was the ability to remove reflections from glass. This feature I could use, a lot. Of course museums are pretty much all closed, so I got to test it out through the window – it’s pretty good, but not always perfect. 

One of the eye-openers for me was the video, with Huawei announcing the P40 Pro would include ‘Cine-Camera’ features including a super slow-mo (960fps), and a really useful feature called audio zoom which focuses on the speaker in a video when you use telephoto to zoom in. Huawei also supports 4K Timelapse, 4K video recording @ 60fps which are welcome additions, and can produce some nice high quality videos. Subject wise I’m a bit strapped around the house, but I can’t wait to try it out on the Canberra vista.

It’s time to address that 5-ton behemoth in the room: Software.  

The Huawei P40 Pro comes with Android 10, with EMUI 10.1 laid over the top. For anyone who has used a Huawei phone before, there’s no real difference in terms of looks and feel, the OS looks and handles just like Android with EMUI, so it’s not scary at all.

There are concerns surrounding updates. With the current state of play, you’re going to be waiting for Huawei to build and distribute any updates for Android built from the publicly available Android Open Source Project repository. 

The current state of affairs sees the P40 Pro with the 1st of April security patch, in June. This is about on-par with manufacturers on a quarterly update cycle, and Huawei has previously committed to keeping flagships up to date so we’ll have to wait and see how it goes further down the track.

App Support

Where things get super interesting is the app supportl. With no Google Play Store – which houses about 2 million apps, games etc. – and no Google Play Services, which most apps use to facilitate simple things such as notifications, Huawei has launched their own Huawei App Gallery, and equivalent Huawei Mobile Services to match. 

For users setting up their P40 Pro you get an option to use the ‘Phone Clone’ which pulls in a number of apps from your old phone, but it didn’t transfer most of my apps, so I needed to head to the Huawei App Gallery.

For some stats, the Huawei App Gallery features according to Huawei ‘quality apps from over 10,000 global partners’ and the company says there are ‘more than 400 million monthly active users around the world, contributing to 210 billion downloads’, so they have numbers, and they have apps including well known titles like Snapchat, Todoist, TikTok, Deezer and more, but they’re missing a whole lot more.

When you find an app that you want isn’t on the Huawei App Gallery, there’s five options really:

  1. Download the app from the companies website – Facebook offers this for their app and WhatsApp too, but not Instagram.
  2. Use the mobile web version.
  3. Request the app – you can add the app to your wishlist and Huawei will apparently look at approaching the developer about adding their app to the App Gallery.
  4. Go to sites like ‘apkmirror’ and attempt to download the APK (Android app file) to your phone and see if it installs. 
  5. Install another app store like Amazon and see what you can get from there.

The first option works – when the app is available, but you’ll have to manually get updates for these apps when they are updated. 

The second option has been ok, but for apps like Instagram, this means there’s no sharing intents, so I can’t share an image to Instagram to post it from the sharing menu. Instead I have to load the site, and add it that way, slower, but still doable. 

The third option has filled my wishlist in the App Gallery, but I am not hopeful these apps will appear any time soon. 

I had a decent hit rate with the fourth option – though notably no Google apps work. You’ll also understandably have trouble tracking down paid apps like Pocket Casts and LastPass through APK Mirror; I found Podcast Addict which does the job quite nicely – but we’re creatures of habit and having to learn a new UI and flow for an app is a learning curve that is too steep for a lot of people – I still really miss LastPass.

You CAN try things like the Amazon app store, but again we’re veering off into territory that’s familiar for tinkerers, but is mostly beyond the average smartphone user. The range of apps on the Amazon app store isn’t that great though, Amazon haven’t even include their Ring! video doorbell app, and I found apps I’d paid for on Google Play needing to be paid for again.

There is light at the end of the tunnel – and it’s not a train. With no sign of the US trade ban ending any time soon – the US recently extended it – Huawei is well and truly invested in making HMS work. They currently have more than 1.3 million developers registered with HMS and they’re approaching more developers to come on board and distribute their apps through there. 

As more users note apps missing from the Huawei App Gallery, popular apps are being highlighted for Huawei to contact developers about getting a HMS enabled version. So while it’s not going to be immediate, Huawei could come out of this with quite a strong app repository.

Should you buy this phone?
I am disappointed to say no for the most part. I’m truly impressed with the phone that Huawei have launched with the P40 Pro. Even if there wasn’t a P40 Pro+ model coming with improved hardware, this would be a top runner for phone of the year – if we looked at hardware alone. 

Unfortunately in todays smartphone world, there’s a heavy emphasis on apps, and you just can’t get enough of them through the Huawei App Gallery – and the options to get the apps that are ‘missing’ aren’t as consumer friendly as they need to be. For me, it’s fine, I know what to do, but to hand this to a relatively naive smartphone user would be a mistake. 

That’s where if you are willing to put in a little bit of effort on the app front you could get some great use out of the P40 Pro. There’s some truly phenomenal stuff Huawei is doing with the camera, and even EMUI offers a few features like multi-screen sharing and more. 

However, there are only a handful of people the P40 Pro is suited for. I love smartphones, and to see something as good as this phone hamstrung by a lack of apps is really disappointing. Given access to the ‘normal’ version of Android, I believe this phone would a smash hit.

We’re halfway through the year, but the P40 Pro is on my list as the best phone of 2020 – but it’s one I can’t recommend for the majority of people because of app availability. Still, if you want to check out a really great smartphone camera, and don’t mind a bit of work with the app side of things, then this is a phone to consider.